[from 'The Woman of Knockaloe' 1923]
A MONTH has passed, yet the camp looks much the same as before. Mona had expected that the prisoners would be liberated by this time, but they are here still. The Commandant is said to be waiting for orders.,
Meantime regulations have been relaxed. The men are no longer restricted to the various compounds. There is no limit to their liberty of moving about, except the big gates, guarded by soldiers, and the three lines of barbed wire by which the camp is surrounded. Why not? Nobody is likely to attempt to escape. Within a few weeks everybody will be free.
Mona has all the help she can do with now. The prisoners are constantly about the farm-house, doing anything they can for her. They show. her photographs of their wives and children and get her to count up the savings that are coming to them.,
At length comes word that the Peace Congress has begun and that the Commandant has received his orders. Two hundred and fifty of the prisoners are to be sent over the water every day until the camp is empty.
But there is a condition attaching to the liberation. Mona hears of it first from three prisoners belonging to distant compounds, who are talking outside the house. To her surprise they are speaking not only in English, but in British dialects.
" They ca' me a Jarmin," says one, " but what am I? I were browt to Owdham when I were five year owd and now 'am fifty, so 'am five year Jarmin and forty-five English. Yet they're sending me back to Jarmany."
" I'm no so sure but my case isna war' nor that, though," says the other. " I came to Glasgie when I was a bairn in my mither's arms, and I've lived there all my life. I married there and my two sons were born there. And now that I've lost both of them fighting in the British army, and my wife's dead of a broken heart and I've nobody left belonging to me, they're for sending me back to a foreign country.."
" Aw well," says the third man, speaking with a smatch of the Anglo-Manx, " I wouldn't trust but my case is worse nor either of yours. I'm German born, that's truth enough, but I've lived in this very island since I was a lump of a lad, and maybe I'm as Manx myself as some ones they make magistrates and judges of. More than that, my only son was born here, and when he grew up to be a fine young fellow, and they said his King and country needed him, he was one of the first to join up and go off to the war. Well, what d'ye think? Twelve month ago he was wounded and invalided home, and then, being no use for foreign service, they sent him to Knockaloe as one of the guard-to guard, among others, his own father. Think of that now! My son outside the barbed wire and me inside! And one of these days he'll have to march me down to Douglas and ship me off to Germany, where I've neither chick nor child, no kith nor kin ... Yes, my lad, that I used to carry on my back and rock in his cradle ! "
Mona is aghast. Something seems to creep between her skin and her flesh. Never before, in all the long agony of the war, with its blood and tears and terror, has she heard of anything so cruel. What a mockery of the Almighty ! Race, race, race! Mother and author of half the wars of the world-when, oh when would the Father of all living wipe the blasphemous word out of the mouths of Christian men?
But the conversation Mona has overheard cuts deeper and closer than that even. If all German-born prisoners are to be sent back to Germany, Oskar will have to go, and what then?
That night a knock comes to her door. It is Oskar himself. His eyes are wild and his lips are trembling.
" You've heard of the new order? " he asks.
" Yes. Will you have to go back also?!'
" I must. I suppose I must."
The first batch to go are from the " millionaires' " quarters. Being rich they have reconciled themselves to the conditions. Park Lane or the Thiergarten-what matter which? In their black clothes, their spats and fur-lined coats, and with their suit-cases packed in a truck, they march off merrily.
The next to go are from the Second Compound, and they make a different pictureill-clad, ill-shod, without an overcoat among them, with nothing in their pockets except the little money they have drawn at the last moment from the camp bank, and nothing in their hands except the canvas bags which contain all their belongings.
It is a miserable January morning, with drizzling rain and a thick mist over the mountains. At a sharp word of command the men go tramping towards the gate, a silent and melancholy lot, totally unlike the singing and swaggering gang who came up the avenue four years ago.
Later in the day the captain of the guard (the new captain) who has seen the men off by the steamer tells Mona a wretched story. The prisoners had passed through Douglas with heads down like men going to execution; they had been drawn up like sheep on the pier, while the ordinary passengers went aboard to their cabins, and then they had been hurried down the gangway to the steerage quarters. And as the steamer moved away they had looked back with longing eyes at the island they were leaving behind them.
Poor, devils I They used to talk about the camp as a hell, but inside six months they'll be ready to crawl on their stomachs to get back to it."
" But why . . . why are they all to be sent to Germany? " asks Mona.
" It's the order of the congress, miss. No country wants to harbour its enemies-not a second time-unless they have something to make them friends."
" But if they have? "
Well, if a German has an English wife and an English business. . ."
" They let him remain-do they? " " I believe they do, miss."
Mona's heart leaps, and a new thought comes to her. If Oskar does not wish to go back to Germany, ;why shouldn't he stay here and farm Knockaloe ?
Next morning, after the third gang has gone, she is on her way to her landlord's. Her last half-year's rent is due, and then there's the question of the lease, which runs out in November.
It is a beautiful morning with blue sky and bright sunshine. The snowdrops are beginning to peep and the yellow eyes of the gorse are showing: As she goes down the road with a high step she is thinking of her landlord's answer to her father when, four years ago, he asked what was to happen to the farm after the war was over: " Don't trouble about that. You are here for life, Robert-you and your children."
She meets her landlord at the gate of his house. He is in his church-going clothes, having just returned from Peel, where he has been sitting on the bench as a magistrate.
" The rent, I suppose? " he says, and he leads her into the sitting-room.
She counts it out to him in Treasury notes, and he gives her a receipt for it. Then he rises and makes for the door, as if wishing to be rid of her. She keeps her seat and says
" What about the lease, sir? "
" We'll not talk about that to-day," says the landlord.
" I'm afraid we must.. I have to make important arrangements."
The landlord looks embarrassed.
" But if you say it will be all right when the time comes, we can leave it for the present, sir," says Mona.
The landlord, who has reached the door and is holding it open, puts on a bold front and says
" Well, to tell you the truth, I've had to make other arrangements."
Mona is thunderstruck, and she rises rigidly.;
" You don't mean to say, sir. that you are ... are letting the farm over my head? " " And if I am, why shouldn't I ? It's mine, I suppose, and I can do what I like with it."
"But you promised my father-faithfully promised him when the farm was turned into a camp . .. ."
" Circumstances alter cases. Your father is dead and so is his son. . . ."
" But his daughter is alive, and what has she done . :. ,.
" Don't ask me what she's done, miss." " But I do, .sir, I do."
Then if you must have it, you must. I want a good man of my own race to farm my land, not an enemy alien."
Mona is speechless for one moment, choking with anger; at the next she is back on the road, weeping bitterly.
Oskar is in the avenue when she returns to it, and seeing she is in trouble he speaks to her.
She tells him what has happened, omitting what was said about himself.
" Your family have lived in Knockaloe for generations, haven't they? " he says. Four generations."
"And you were born there, weren't you? -''
" It's a shame-a damned shame.." Mona is crushed. Knockaloe is lost to her. And this is the peace she has prayed and prayed for !
One day passes, then another. Every morning Mona sees a fresh batch of prisoners leaving the camp, and her-heart sinks at the sight of them. Oskar's turn will come some day. It tears her to pieces to think of it-Oskar going off at that melancholy pace, down the avenue and round by Kirk Patrick.
At length a spirit of defiance takes possession of her. Knockaloe is dear, to her by a thousand memories, but it is not the only place on the island. She has heard of a farm in the north that is to be let in November. It is large, therefore it is not everybody who can stock it, but she can, because she has always thought it her duty to put everything she has earned during the war into cattle to meet the requirements of the camp.
She is upstairs in her bedroom, making ready for a visit to the northern landlord, ,when she hears the loud clatter of hoofs in the avenue. Long John Corlett, who used to come courting her for the sake of the stock, is riding a heavy cart-horse up to the house. He sees her and, without troubling to dismount, he calls to her, to come down. Resenting his impudence, she makes him wait, but at length she goes out to him.
Well, what is it, John Corlett? " You'll have heard, my girl, that I'm the new tenant of Knockaloe?"
I haven't; but if you are, what of it? " " I've come to ask you how long you want to stay.,"
"Until the lease runs out-what else do you expect, sir? "
" But why should you? The camp will be empty before that time comes, and what can you do with your milk when the men are gone?"
" I can do what I did before they came, if you want to know."
" Oh, no, you can't. You've lost your milk run, and you can never get it back again."
"Who says I can't? "
" I say so. Everybody says so. Ask anybody you like, woman-any of your old customers.
Mona is colouring up to the eyes.
" Then tell them I don't care if I never can," she says, and turns back to the house. " Wait! There's something else, though. What about the dilapidations?
" According to the agreement with the Government the landlord has to make good the damage to the houses and the tenant the injury to the land."
It is true--she had forgotten all about it.
" Twenty-five thousand men here for four years-it will take something to put the land into cultivation."
In a halting voice she asks Corlett what he thinks it will cost, and he mentions a monstrous figure.
" Three years' rent of the farm-that's the best I can make it."
Mona gasps and her face becomes white. " But that would leave me without a shilling," she says.
" Tut, woman! With the big rent you've had from the Government you must have a nice little nest-egg somewhere."
" But I haven't. I've put everything into stock."
The hulking fellow slaps his leg with his riding whip and makes a long whistle.
" Well, so much the better if it's all on the land."
Then he drops from his saddle to the ground, and comes close to Mona as if to coax her.
" Look here, Mona woman, no one shall say John Corlett is a hard man. Leave everything on the farm as it stands, and well cry quits this very inmute."
Mona looks at him in silence for moment. Then she says, _)'reathing rapidly " John Corlett, do you want to turn me out of my father's farm a beggar and a pauper?"
" Chut, girl, what's the odds? There's somebody will be wanting you to follow him to foreign parts when he goes himself- though you might have done 5oetter at home, I'm thinking."
Mona's breath comes hot and. fast and her face grows crimson. Then she falls on the man like a fury.
" Out of this, you robber, you thief, you dirt! "
The big bully leaps back into his saddle. Snatching at his reins, he shouts that if she won't listen to reason he will " put the law on her," and not a beast shall she take off the land until his dues as incoming tenant are paid to him.
" Out of it! " cries Mona, and she lifts up a stick that lies near, to her.;
Seeing it swinging in the air and likely to fall on him, the man tugs at his reins to swirl out of reach of the blow, and the stick falls on his horse's flank. The horse throws up her hind legs, leaps forward, and goes down the avenue at a gallop.
The rider has as much as he can do to keep his seat, and the last that is seen of him (shouting something about " you and your Boche ") is of his hindmost parts bobbing up and down as his horse dashes through the gate and up the road towards home.
Some of the guard who have been looking on and listening burst into roars of laughter. Mona bursts into tears and goes indoors. If her stock is to be taken, the island, as well as Knockaloe, is lost to her!
Late that night Oskar, comes again.
His eyes are fierce and his face is twitching.
" I've heard what happened," he says, " and if I were a free man I should break every bone in the blackguard's skin. But I can't let you go on suffering like this for me. You must give me up, Mona."
It is the first time an open acknowledgment of their love has passed between them. Mona is confused for a moment. Then she says,
Do you mean me to give you up, Oskar? "
He does not answer,,,
" To see you go away with the rest, and to think no more about you?
Still he does not answer.
" Do you? " God knows I don't," he says, and at the next moment he is gone.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2008